393 Things

Charge to the Ordinand for my advisee, Pat            November 7, 2010

I will never forget the Monday afternoon I learned our beautiful, re-designed church newsletter could not be mailed for the then-current First Class postage amount, 39 cents. The newsletter was not overweight; a call from Bob at the Sanford Post Office informed us that the orientation of the address box changed the status of the mailing, and each newsletter would require 13 cents in additional postage. Since it was the eve of the first of the month, and we wanted the newsletter to be not only attractive but also timely, and no one else was in the office, I went to the Post Office myself.

And there I stood in line, for a good, long while. When I reached the Post Office window, the clerk handed me the box of newsletters. I stepped out of line to count them—there were 131—and then got back in line to wait some more. Of course there was no such thing as a 13 cent stamp to be had.  Jim, Bob's comrade, informed me that they probably didn't have enough 10 and 3 cent stamps for my purposes.  He went into the vault to see what he could find. He returned with 131 5-cent stamps and 262 4-cent stamps, a daunting sight. Although frustrated, I decided I had no choice. I stood at a counter across from the window, placing those 393 stamps while my fingers grew numb. 

5 cent stamp As I worked, I thought about the households where the newsletter would be carried by a postal employee, the person who would take the mail out of the box or pick it up on the other side of a slot and be surprised by the new direction and design of five sheets of paper bearing notes and news in the life of our faith community. I wondered what they would think of the four stamps, Chippendale chairs and American Toleware flanking the American flag affixed earlier by a faithful volunteer. I puzzled over the names I did not recognize and smiled at those I did. I was still new to that church, but I was beginning to know who needed a prayer, even a hasty one.

And as I worked, it occurred to me that there are at least 393 things they do not teach us in seminary. 

First of all, it probably could have waited until the next day. Really. Other than what we do on Sunday mornings and any actual emergencies, much of the work we do in pastoral ministry can wait until another day. Take the time to consider what really needs to happen now and what can wait. It will make you more effective.

Second, don’t feel you have to do everything yourself. When the lovely church members who do much of the work at North Parish heard my story the next day, one after another said, “Why didn’t you call me? Surely you had other things to do!” Surely, and verily, I did. Worse, I took away their opportunity to be part of the team.

Third, sometimes you will make the mistake of thinking you have to do it all despite this sincere and articulate wisdom from your advisor. It is the Myth of Indispensability, and all pastors believe in it sometimes. Admit it to yourself. Confess it to God. Confide it to a friend or a colleague, because that will make it easier to be accountable. 

Fourth, admit you are sometimes powerless not to do it that way again.

Fifth, when you feel certain that changing something, anything at church will be the best way to bring in God’s kingdom by noon tomorrow—as I admittedly felt about that newsletter design—pause. Consider. Pray. Reconsider. Seek counsel. Pray some more. Make sure you’ve accounted for as many potential ramifications as possible, including people’s feelings and arcane rules about postage stamps.

Sixth, when you can’t get out of your own way, and that will happen, remember that Jesus felt that way too sometimes and got out of everybody’s way. Retreat time matters, for your body, your mind and your soul. When all else fails, take a nap.

Seventh, remember that you will continue to discover gaps in your education. Please know that we didn’t mean to leave these things out in the classrooms or over lunch. We’re all still learning, too.

Lastly, aren’t you glad this didn’t go on to 393? You will absolutely live and learn at least 393 more things about the intersection of the sacred and the ordinary, the mystery of God’s presence with us wherever we go, including the Post Office. And if you find you are putting the stamps on yourself, be sure to place them with an emphatic “Amen,” even if you have to do it 393 times. 

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